WASHINGTON – A group tied to perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche posted a list of congressional town hall meetings in August to inform activists nationally about "opportunities to intervene and challenge your member of Congress."
They didn't find any in Minnesota.
Traditional town hall meetings, a flashpoint of recent summer recesses, are dwindling in number across the nation even as interest groups of all stripes are ramping up the pressure on issues ranging from immigration to Obamacare.
In Minnesota, in-person appearances by members of Congress have been replaced in several instances by cardboard cutouts, photos, and empty chairs highlighting their absence.
Congressional aides point to their participation in other public forums that are less prone to hijacking by activist groups with agendas, which sometimes includes embarrassing confrontations that can go viral on the Internet.
Several Minnesota lawmakers have taken to telephone conference "town halls," which can be conducted from their own homes or offices. Almost all highlight their visits to the State Fair, where they say they mix with a cross-section of regular people who haven't been bused in to attack them.
U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democrat who regularly greets fairgoers on opening day, calls it "the mother of all town halls." Fellow DFL Sen. Al Franken, who involved the public in picking the food he ate at the fair this year, called it "the biggest town hall you could possibly hold."
Both also traveled extensively throughout the state and met with constituents in different settings. But activists on both sides of the political spectrum say it's hard to match the robust exchanges of classic town hall meetings, particularly at the fair.
"It's a happy place. It's not a place for political confrontation," said Javier Morillo, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 26. The labor group was part of a coalition that tried unsuccessfully to invite Republican Erik Paulsen to an immigration forum in Chaska last week. When he didn't show up, they set up an empty chair.
Tea Party groups, which popularized the orchestrated "town hall strategy" during the raucous August recess of 2009, were stymied in their efforts two weeks ago to draw Democrat Tim Walz to a Rochester forum. They settled for propping up his photo on a folding chair. Walz and Paulsen, along with Republican John Kline — reduced to a cardboard cutout at a DFL-sponsored forum in Eagan — all say they meet with Minnesotans regularly in other ways, including in events organized by local groups.
"Congressman Kline embraces a variety of ways to communicate with his constituents," said Kline spokesman Troy Young, pointing to his visits with farmers, organizations and businesses in his district. Kline also was one of the early adopters in Congress of telephone town hall meetings.
Walz spokesman Tony Ufkin said the Mankato DFLer "believes that hearing the thoughts and concerns of those he represents in Congress is the cornerstone of our democracy." Ufkin highlighted Walz's involvement in an open forum at Farmfest, a statewide call-in radio show, and stops at various county fairs and town celebrations.
Paulsen says he attended several public forums last month, including one with Minneapolis Democrat Keith Ellison on airport noise. "He has a record of being out in the community as much as possible," said Paulsen spokesman Philip Minardi.
'It's their job'
U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., plans to hold two public forums Thursday on the federal budget. But open-ended town hall meetings remain the standard by which many constituents and veteran political groups judge members of Congress, particularly groups that rally around the gatherings for shows of strength.
"Most members of Congress have stopped engaging constituents and defending their policy initiatives," said Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, a national Tea Party group that tracks town hall meetings and encourages its supporters to attend. "That's the real outrage here, the 'inside the beltway' resistance to a participatory process where people have a voice."
Democrats, who saw the Tea Party mobilize against Obama's health care plan in the 2009 August recess, have pushed back this year by pressing Republicans on immigration reform and a potential GOP-led government shutdown in the fall.
They acknowledge that town hall forums are not always scenes of Norman Rockwell-like civility. "But that doesn't legitimize not holding forums," said Susan Moravec, the DFL chairwoman in the Second Congressional District, which is represented by Kline.
That sentiment is shared by Carol Stevenson, the Republican chairwoman of the First Congressional District, which is represented by Walz. "It's their job to meet with constituents, and not just go to events that are favorable to them and meet with people who agree with them," she said.
But even as town hall meetings are increasingly the targets of orchestrated campaigns, most remain fairly sedate affairs. Even at the height of the health care debate, "what you saw on YouTube were the most extreme examples," said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation, which monitors the practices of Capitol Hill offices.
Many options still open
Fitch argues there are still plenty of ways for lawmakers to interact with the public. "There is a myth that members of Congress are not accessible or difficult to reach," he said. "In fact, [they] have an extraordinary plethora of means to interact, especially in the Internet age."
Fitch includes the growing use of so-called tele-town halls, teleconferences that can reach tens of thousands of people at a time. "While they are less robust environments than in-person, face-to-face meetings, they reach literally 10 to 100 times more constituents," he said. They also reach people who wouldn't ordinarily attend a regular town hall meeting.
The popularity of camera phones also has altered the landscape for lawmakers, even at the State Fair. A video of Al Franken talking down a group of Tea Partiers at the 2009 State Fair has had nearly a million views.
Moreover, political "trackers" in the service of campaigns aren't just confined to town hall meetings. "It's no accident that Michele Bachmann was photographed with a corn dog in her mouth," Moravec said of a widely-distributed fair photo of the Minnesota Republican. "Everything is more visible."
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